Fentanyl vaccine developed by researchers could eliminate drug's 'high'

Yellow, green, pink and purple fentanyl pills wrapped in plastic.
Fentanyl pills found by officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration are seen in this handout picture in New York on Oct. 4. (Drug Enforcement Administration/Handout via Reuters)

Researchers have developed a fentanyl vaccine that could eliminate the drug’s “high” by blocking its ability to enter the brain — which could be a major step forward in the ongoing opioid crisis.

The study, conducted by a research team led by the University of Houston and funded by the Department of Defense through the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Disorder Research Program, was published in the journal Pharmaceutics at the end of October.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, is prescribed by doctors to treat severe pain after surgery or for advanced-stage cancer patients. However, illicitly manufactured fentanyl can also be abused for a “short-term high” or “temporary feelings of euphoria” and is deadly when added to street drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and other opioids. “Over 150 people die every day from overdoses related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl,” estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Colin Haile, a research associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study, said in a news release that the vaccine “is able to generate anti-fentanyl antibodies that bind to the consumed fentanyl and prevent it from entering the brain, allowing it to be eliminated out of the body via the kidneys.

“Thus, the individual will not feel the euphoric effects and can ‘get back on the wagon’ to sobriety.”

Haile added that the anti-fentanyl antibodies didn’t cross-react with other opioids, meaning a vaccinated person could still be treated for pain relief with other opioids.

The vaccine did not cause any adverse side effects in rats involved in lab studies, and clinical trials in humans are planned “soon,” with manufacturing of clinical-grade vaccine to begin in the coming months.

Vaccines that could combat drug addiction — and particularly opioid overdose — have been in the works for some time. Human trials of an experimental opioid vaccine led by scientists at Columbia University and the University of Minnesota Medical School began late last year after the vaccine was shown to be safe and effective in mice.